The Anxious Generation

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s book The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Haidt is a social psychologist who teaches at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Two of his notable previous books are The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind. I have followed some of his work on his Substack After Babel.

In The Anxious Generation, Haidt connects the precipitous decline in the mental health of teenagers that began around 2010 with the emergence of the smartphone and the demise of play-based childhood. Haidt draws upon numerous studies to argue that the current mental health epidemic is directly connected to how smartphones are rewiring childhood. (Some reviewers have suggested that Haidt is confusing correlation with causation. This is an important charge to consider. Although the reviews, I have seen have not provided a robust engagement with Haidt’s data nor posited a convincing alternative explanation.)

Haidt maintains that the combination of increasing prevalent styles of helicopter parenting, which Haidt calls “safetyism,” with the rise of the phone-based childhood has proved to be a toxic brew when it comes to the pyschological, social, and emotional development of children. Safetyism curtails the opportunities children have to deal with risk, conflict and frustration (94). While smartphones contribute to “four foundational harms”: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction (ch. 5). Haidt suggests these harms manifest themselves in different forms in the lives of boys and girls. Social media is the main threat to young women (ch. 6), while video game platforms and pornography have become black holes for young men (ch. 7).

The second half of the book is a call to action and consists of a number of practical steps that concerned parents and educators can take to alleviate the mental suffering that has resulted from the great rewiring. At it’s most basic level, Haidt’s proposals can be boiled down to the following four principles:

1. No smartphones before high school.

2. No social media before 16

3. Phone-free schools

4. Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence. (290)

One of the things that I found to be particularly fascinating in this part of the book was Haidt’s framing of the matter as a spiritual crisis, even though Haidt himself identifies as an atheist (ch. 8). (Interestingly, another atheist, Richard Dawkins, has also recently attempted to claim a use for Christianity, by identifying as a “cultural Christian,” while continuing to deny Christianity’s core theological convictions.) Haidt sounds rather Augustinian when he postulates, “There is a hole, an emptiness in us all, that we strive to fill.  If it doesn’t get filled with something noble and elevated, modern society will quickly pump it full of garbage.  That has been true since the beginning of the age of mass media, but the garbage pump got 100 times more powerful in the 2010s” (216).

The Anxious Generation is a timely and fascinating book, whose arguments and proposals merit wide and deep discussion. Parents, educators, and anyone with a stake in the wellbeing of today’s and tomorrow’s teenagers would be well served by reading it.

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